(Photo: Jeff Swinger, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
They visited the boy, named Constantin, in a St. Petersburg orphanage several times over the course of a week. They signed adoption papers with Russian officials.
"The child now calls us Mommy and Daddy," Sweeney said.
The couple, who live in this Cincinnati suburb and have biological children ages 14, 8 and 5, need two additional trips to finalize the adoption. In the meantime, they left photo albums with the boy "and said we would be back soon to get him. So he's expecting us," Sweeney said.
But now that appears to be impossible. On Friday, Russian President Vladimar Putin signed a bill to ban Americans adopting Russian children. It becomes effective Tuesday with the start of the new year.
For Sweeney and Zimina and other U.S. families whose Russian adoptions are in progress, the news is devastating.
"It's really unbearable," said Sweeney, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University. "We feel like we're failing the child. We said we'd come back for him. It's just hard. It's hard to imagine how crushed he's going to be.
"And on top of that, we're concerned about him getting the medical care he needs."
The special-needs boy has neurological and spinal problems.
Russia's anti-adoption bill is widely seen as the Kremlin's retaliation against an American law that calls for sanctions against Russians deemed to be human rights violators. It comes as Putin takes an increasingly confrontational attitude toward the West, brushing aside concerns about a crackdown on dissent and democratic freedoms.
Dozens of Russian children close to being adopted by American families now will almost certainly be blocked from leaving the country. The law also cuts off the main international adoption route for Russian children stuck in often dismal orphanages: Tens of thousands of Russian youngsters have been adopted in the U.S. in the past 20 years. There are about 740,000 children without parental care in Russia, according to UNICEF.
For Sweeney and Zimina, especially, there is a sad irony to a Russian ban on adoptions by Americans. She is a Russian native, born in Moscow.
"We speak Russian at home. We lived in Russia for a while. We have family in Russia," Sweeney said. "We are about as Russian as you can be without actually being in Russia."
His wife works for the city of Cincinnati as an architecture designer. "My connection to Russia is strong," she said, adding that she comes from a family that, in the years before the Russian Revolution, was among the country's most powerful.
"I really did want to help Russia," she said. And the way to do that, she felt, was by adopting one of its children. The couple say they have so far spent about $17,000 on the adoption.
Dr. Mary Staat, director of the International Adoption Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said children adopted from Russia often pose challenges.
"The thing that stands out for Russia and Eastern Europe is the high rates of alcohol use and drug use that places those kids at higher risk. A lot of (adoptive) families have struggled with the long-term effects of fetal alcohol syndrome in their kids."
Because Constantin has special needs, he had already been rejected by an Italian couple who initially agreed to adopt him.
"He's going to consider this another betrayal," Zimina said.
"We still hope for the best, and we pray," she said. But as she follows developments in Russia, she feels hope is dwindling.
If need be, she said, she will ask her adoption agency to deliver a letter to the boy. In it, she will try to explain why the people he had begun calling Mommy and Daddy will not be coming back for him.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)